Free Will: Its Essential Nature and Implications


Yep, I do know what you mean. I know that we all have a tendency to bring our presuppositions to the table with these things though, and one of the things I always have to keep in mind is that the ancient Hebrew mind worked and viewed things very differently than our modern Western minds do. As an example, I was just looking up the word Olam, and one of the interesting notes on the concept of Olam (aside from what we already know about it as universalists) was that the ancient Hebrews viewed the past as being in front of them and the future behind; just the opposite of how we view it! Similarly, their directional orientation (instead of basing everything off of North as the default orientation like we do), was East. So, the grounding of their basic posture toward certain concepts that we take for granted as being a certain way were quite different! So of course, that’s going to make understanding things written from (or perhaps more accurately, to) that framework of understanding much more difficult for us.

I found this article on the same site, which is pretty interesting:


I must say I never imagined that, after this amount of words, and time, I would be yet so far from clarity on this issue.

I see vague forms, and shapes beginning to form yes; but I can not pretend this all makes coherent sense to me.
To be sure, focus seems attainable, yes; but it seems some ways off right now.

All these words, and terms, and differing definitions and nuances of meaning…. Daunting. And lurking in all this, I’m fairly certain, are great truths; though I’m hesitant to alight on a particular branch too quickly…

What does it mean to be free, to be determined, to be rational, to choose, to react, to submit to influence… the words cross out from lips, I’m not sure we mean the same things by them.

There seem to be lines in the sand (so to speak);
chris says if we are determined, we simply cannot be free… I’d agree I suppose, in theory, but then he allows for our capacity to be heavily influenced. ie we are not determined, but our circumstance can be. ( I actually like this!) It seem crucial to chris that the acts which demonstrate our movement toward salvation must be our own. ie uncaused from outside. But what exactly is “outside” and what is “inside”?

Tom talks about the “psychological possibility” of doing something that is understood to be not in the best interest of that person. Motivation for doing such a thing? We can construct one.

I’m sensing a great divide between Tom and Chris – that they themselves are not (yet) addressing. By this I mean chris holds to a “fall” from what must be (presumably) a state of being informed, and knowledgeable, (which must be different from Tom’s state of initial “ambiguity, ignorance, etc”) yet Tom seems to hold that this state is something to which we can only grow. That’s a huge difference to my mind.

Sentient creature X does something bad/wrong… why does he do this?
Well, it’s because he:
a - is uniformed about the consequences
b - does not yet posses the psychological “tools” to do otherwise…
c - is simply a “bad” person doing what comes naturally to him…
d - gets some perverse pleasure (which he perceives as positive) from it…

None of which really addresses what it means for that person to be “free”…

And then there is the huge, massive loophole which everybody talks about – but especially perhaps Cindy here… That each of these factors are experienced in degrees… degrees of freedom; degrees of determination; degrees of rationality; degrees of knowledge. But a semi truck full of excuses and explanations can be driven through any one of these “loopholes”!

In the end though, we simply must be true to what chris reminds us about; accountability, and ourselves (or sentient creatures) as the source of evil.

And lastly, and perhaps most confusing of all, is the element of time and growth and learning… which Cindy also speaks very well about… Tom can be difficult to follow for me, in part I’ve decided, because he jumps around in time; from periods of “ambiguity and uncertainty” (which must be early on) to times of such psychological advancement wherein a mother finds it psychologically impossible to not do the right thing! (that must be further along in the spectrum of moral development…) Those are of course vastly different things, yet we apply the term “freedom” to them equally.

I still observe that tom and chris use the term “rationality” in different ways (see post from Wed Apr 16) as well as not being clear (so far as I can tell at least) on the place and role and nature of our “desires” (following post).

So here we are, trying to formulate a hypothesis in which (some form of) libertarian freedom simply must be accepted – all the while acknowledging that none of this is ever “all-or-nothing” so that everything here can be manifested only partially: freedom, knowledge, desire, will, determinism/indeterminism and so on.

So as you can see, I’m miles from (and miles from where I imagined I’d be) finding a coherent solution to all this…

Which actually makes it all the more fun and challenging I suppose!

Blessed Easter everyone…



Hi Dave, :smiley:

I realize this is getting way off the subject of “free will” but would just like to point out what it means for mankind to be “made in the image of God” according to Peter Enns and other scholars. I’ll link to this relatively brief discussion by him (with links after the article to continuing discussion). I think it is important to understand what this means to the writer of I agree with Enns that we load Genesis with too large a theological burden for the most part. We read all sorts of theology into this ancient story that wasn’t meant by the author nor essential to our Christian faith.

To make things super-short, Adam (representative of mankind and perhaps more importantly proto-Israel), ***was meant to be God’s representative ruler***s. That is what being made in the image of God means. Here’s a quote from the article I linked to:

I highly recommend Enns book The Evolution of Adam. Understanding the reasons for the Genesis story, the theology the author of Genesis was presenting and, yes, Paul’s use of Genesis was extremely helpful to me.

If the theology within Genesis is more circumscribed --not as ambitious as later theologians loaded it with, then perhaps there is more room for God creating man in a “context of ambiguity, ignorance, and indeterminism.”

Edit: Oh! And Happy Easter, Bobx3! (Just saw your post)
He is indeed risen, Bobx3, and I hope we can agree on that. :laughing:


That’s book no. 147 in line to be read! :smiley:


It’s a good one!


Chris –

I agree wholeheartedly that God must be good. Start with God is Love. Love will seek to serve other persons, to multiply Love; and therefore others are created. God creates other persons to grow to fully participate in Love, but persons are not persons unless they voluntarily choose (free will) to embrace Love, dethrone Self, be the servant as He is the Servant. They can only arrive at this voluntary choice through a journey of growth and discovery for themselves, not through having pre-programmed responses like automatons, or some pseudo-history of experience built-in.

So creation of persons requires the potential of evil to exist, and I am sure God wasn’t surprised that creating billions and billions of free wills resulted in evil actualizing. He must have known this would happen before creating anything, and yet considered the result worth the cost. And to me it would only be worth the cost if God would leave none behind. I don’t see him as some eugenicist, breeding a favored few specimens, while discarding the rest through blood, tooth and claw and annihilation or permanent torment. I see Him as a loving Father Who will have every child grow into the person they were meant to be. But without that potential for evil there would be no person.

To me, this gets back to the free will of the Godhead itself to be an eternal picture, reality of the submission of Self to the other, which means a continual rejection of the potential of evil within the wills of the Godhead. I see it as God could do evil, but never would do evil, because He is Love. He is a continuous, perfect denial of the evil which He has the power to do.

I have the feeling I’m alone here in thinking this way, though – and I probably have some serious flaws in that picture I have, judging by the usual crickets…lol :slight_smile:


Hi Micah,
I think you’d be surprised at how many of us agree with the bulk of what you say. :smiley:
Many of us believe that in order for creatures separate from God, with their own “will” and “personhood” to exist, they must come forth in a “context of ambiguity, ignorance, and indeterminism.” This makes evil and sin likely, even inevitable (though it is only a by-product of the condition–not really needed by God.)

The only thing I’d quibble with is that I don’t think that God has even the potential to choose evil any more than light can become darkness.



I’m curious, Chris, how you interpret several teachings in the New Testament. According to the self-description attributed to Paul in 1 Timothy 1:15 and 17, he numbered himself among the “foremost” or “the worst” of sinners. I take this quite literally in the following sense: Paul/Saul clearly had the heart of a religious terrorist who was, prior to his conversion on the road to Damascus, “a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence” (1 Tim. 1:13a). Indeed, even as he prepared to set forth on the road to Damascus, he was “still breathing threats and murder against the people of the Lord” (Acts 9:1). If his actions were less destructive on the whole than were those of a Hitler or a Stalin, this is only because he did not have 20th Century technology or the power of a modern state at his fingertips.

So what is the implied New Testament diagnosis of where this foremost of sinners had gone wrong? He went wrong, so we read in the text, precisely because he had “acted ignorantly in unbelief” (1 Tim 1:13b) and this underscores the essential role that ignorance plays in even the worst of sins. Although Christians sometime seem suspicious of the Socratic idea that the essence of virtue is a certain kind of knowledge, insight, and clarity of vision, we find ample support for such an idea in the Bible itself. Did not Jesus declare from the Cross: “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing”? (Luke 13:34). And we find Peter expressing a similar attitude when he charged an audience with killing “the Author of life”: “I know that you acted in ignorance, as did also your rulers” (Acts 3:17). The clear implication here is that those who crucified the Lord had no idea that they were acting wrongly and may even have presumed that they were doing the right thing; in that respect, they were no different from those who drowned Anabaptists in Zurich, or those who burned Servetus at the stake in Geneva, or those who hanged young women as witches in Salem, Massachusetts. I do not mean to minimize the evil implicit in such acts of terror; far from it. But those who commit such acts of terror often count themselves among the righteous doing battle against evil, and they are, more often than not, utterly oblivious to their own self-righteous motives and attitudes.

So why, I wonder, do you want to minimize the role that ignorance, faulty judgment, and delusion play in even the worst of sins?



I’m certainly not up to the task of squaring every verse of the Bible with any particular theological theory of sin and free will. I’m not even sure that’s possible. There can always be verses brought forth which seem to contradict a specific teaching - though I would not agree with you that sin coming from ignorance (or only from ignorance) is a Biblical “teaching”. I will say this however.

The verse in Acts where Peter attributes ignorance to the people is immediately followed by a command to repent. If their sin was due entirely to ignorance, it would be excusable. Why then the command? If I never told my son not to color on the walls, it would make little sense for me to punish him or make him “repent” for doing such a thing. I may as well punish him for wearing a green shirt. Not only that, but if they really are ignorant, who’s to say they’re even capable of understanding Peter’s telling them to repent?

What I think Jesus meant in the prayer you cite is something along the lines of - “these people know what they’re doing is wrong, though there is no way they know the enormity of it.” A person can still know that murder is wrong and not know he is murdering the Son of God. About St. Paul - all I can say is that it seems to me impossible to maintain that all his acts were through sheer ignorance, else he couldn’t turn around and call himself a sinner. But to say that God forgave him because of that ignorance is to contradict the fact that he was shown mercy to display God’s “perfect patience”, as he says immediately after. Would we say God was “patient” with a person he in fact made ignorant himself? I take it that there is always an ignorant element to sin, but that ignorance is often self-imposed by the privileging of the “darkness over the light”. That’s not to say that we all have the same notions of right and wrong, but I do think for an act to actually be sinful and worthy of blame, it must be made with the knowledge that it should not be done. Why sin is possible is because that knowledge, which is imparted from God through our conscience, is I believe always able to be rejected by our will. In these moments of free moral decision - moments which contribute most to our creaturely becoming - God cannot speak to us in such a way that destroys our ability to ourselves choose the good. Perhaps this is why God is always bound to forgive sin: our choice is never made in the context of an irresistible impulse, knowing absolutely all the consequences which would ensue from it. Again, if we absolutely knew that sin was really bad for us, so to speak, we would never do it! Hence God can’t give us that kind of knowledge in our journey of creaturely becoming his sons and daughters and brothers of Jesus, because that would make it impossible to do anything but what was good. We would then be serving necessity, not God. God would be pulling all the strings. He would be doing good through us or making us do good, but we would not be doing anything.

I want to finally say, though, that I privilege my own existential experience and conscience above Scripture. The former is much less subject to misinterpretation. And so I’m happy to admit that I don’t know how to perfectly synthesize all of St. Paul’s writings - with themselves or some of Jesus’ words or even my own understanding of morality. But what do you say in regard to *your *experience? Have you never had the experience that, at the time of committing a sin, you knew the act to be wrong but did it anyway? It is this experience, I believe, that must be accounted for, far more than a few sentences from a man who wasn’t even writing directly to us and never got the chance to really explain what he meant 9/10ths of the time.


As you’d expect from my blind spots, I doubt putting observing our experience “above” Scripture helps your case. You assert an act can’t be sinful unless one knows it’s sinful. Do you then deny Tom’s observations that the hugest of evils are often done by the self-righteous who give every appearance of deeply believing that they are doing the right thing? You say Paul’s atrocities cannot have “come through ignorance.” But he seems to insist this was his perception too. You say Paul nor Jesus can mean that forgiveness comes because of ignorance (that all such folk surely knew their acts were sinful), and that such passages are too obscure to influence our perception of whether ignorance is a key factor in our sins.

But my perception is that Paul rather plainly says that he too perceives that mercy came precisely “because of” his ignorance, and Jesus’ use of “for” makes ignorance the very ground of requesting their forgiveness. Haven’t you and I also often experienced looking back at actions we justified at the time, and realized our need to repent, and say, Lord, forgive me of my damagingly perverse and ignorant foolishness?

While my emphasis is contrary, I appreciate a stimulating brother who offers support for a worthy and classic view. Blessings, Bob


I have often ignorantly done a thing - but I can’t seriously say I’d view such an act as sinful. Only if that ignorance had came from my own choices to deceive myself into thinking such and such was “really right” could I properly understand acting out of ignorance to be morally wrong.

Since we’re on the matter of Scripture, what do you make out of verses like the sin against the Holy Ghost? Is that done out of ignorance? Or what about Paul saying “sin is not counted where there is no law”; or Jesus saying, “If you were blind, you would have no guilt; but now that you say, ‘We see,’ your guilt remains.”?

And what about your experience - have you really never done a thing you knew was wrong at the time of doing it?


I acknowledged several times on this thread that Paul’s & my own experience is often of looking back & feeling that I knew what I did was wrong. As I said to Tom, my emphasis has been that I don’t experience complex human psychology and “understanding” as simply “either-or.” I’ve said that often my clarity on the perversity of my action was much clearer some time after, than it was in the deceived moment where I justified doing it.

I appreciate your confirmation of feeling acts done with a lack of understanding that they’re wrong cannot be considered “sins.” Again, my observation is that many of the worst sins that I and others commit are characterized by great ignorance of their significance and smug assurance that we are in fact justified in violating what love is all about. So my sense is that these acts represent a terrible “missing of the mark” of what God calls us toward, deserve precisely to be “repented” of (changing what I do), and that in my deception I need God’s forgiving grace to experience his assurance and restoring work in my life. I.e. these acts feel to me like a quintessential version of “sin.”

On the apparently dueling texts, I actually perceive that “the sin against the Holy Spirit,” wherein the ‘righteous’ accused Jesus of using Satan’s power, epitomizes self-righteous thinking that was ignorant. I see no reason to assume that they did not genuinely perceive Jesus’ outrageous teaching and behavior as blasphemous, and thus sincerely believed some kind of sorcery must be going on. In the classic interpretation, this is “unforgiveable” because it reveals a hardened blindness that will never repent if the slate is just wiped clean. Rather it’s vital they don’t escape the ‘unforgiveable’ consequences of such deceived thinking. That is to say, it still represents precisely a “sin” which requires repentance.

On the Romans’ texts about the law being needed to reveal what we will “count” as sin, I hear Paul to say that evil behavior before we knew the law was still sinful (pre-Law folk still experienced judgment), but that the Law’s abilities to spell out what is sinful, is vital for exposing to our own understanding much more clearly the perversity that was always there. So when Paul says, he thought he kept all the law, but then the command against coveting hit him, and “killed him” in the realization that he had been constantly coveting a righteousness not his own, I don’t assume that he thought that the ego-centered coveting to which he had formerly been oblivious was fine. Rather, this epiphany painfully showed the Law’s function of exposing our ignorant sins, and assisted him in the necessary repentance concerning them.

On Jesus’ words that his critics “see,” and thus “your guilt remains,” it doesn’t appear to me that Jesus is affirming that he actually believes they truly “see.” Rather it is the use of ironic language or sarcasm, to say that their confidence that they know what to do with Jesus and his message and thus so ignorantly claim to ‘see’ the truth, is precisely the evil disaster that needs repentance. I.e. what Jesus actually wants them to do is acknowledge that they are “blind.” For the reality is that as Paul and Jesus suggest, experiencing God truly forgives and that we no longer have to bear “guilt,” often comes parallel to recognizing that we have been trapped in ignorance and deception.

In candor, these are my off the top of my head unstudied impressions. And we universalists along with others, quickly learn that we all tend to make challenging Scriptures fit the philosophical view that we want to be true. So I welcome your reflection on my inevitable blind spots here.


Hmm; well that depends I think on how one understands what is meant by “repent”. It seems here that you’re thinking of this in “legal”/ penal terms; Peter doesn’t just excuse their (true) ignorance because he’s not instructing them to initiate some kind of payback for a misdeed. ‘Repent’ literally means to change your mind/ thinking, which is something different entirely to a mere consequence or punishment for a wrong action.
Peter is essentially saying, "look; your thinking on this is ignorant and wrong and it’s causing you to stumble, so change how you think about and approach this.


I have suggested on several occasions that ignorance plays an essential role in all sin, and, as I see it, Jesus’ own prayer from the Cross, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing,” illustrates the point nicely. But in response to that example, Chris wrote:

Here is what I am wondering, Chris. How can you counter the claim that, as depicted in the New Testament, those who crucified Jesus acted in ignorance merely by specifying the kind of ignorance that might have been involved? As you point out yourself, they had no idea of “the enormity of” what they were doing. Isn’t that a significant degree of ignorance? You also imply that they had no knowledge that they were “murdering the Son of God.” Isn’t that too a significant degree of ignorance on your own view? They no doubt knew that murder is wrong; you are quite right about that. But why suppose they believed themselves to be committing murder or thought of themselves as murderers? It seems to me far more likely, given a host of incidents recorded in the gospel accounts, that they thought of Jesus as a fraud, a blasphemer, or a false prophet who deserved to die. I daresay that those devout Christians who hanged young women as witches in Salem, Massachusetts, also knew that murder is wrong. But do you think they recognized their own acts as acts of murder?

You went on to write:

I have indeed had such an experience, and one particular instance from my undergraduate days is still highly embarrassing to me. I remember trying to crucify a classmate verbally all the while thinking, “This is WRONG; you are being an absolute ass, Tom.” Whether I was acting freely in some libertarian sense or acting out of a desperate and neurotic need to “win” an argument and thereby to bolster my own ego, I have no idea. Nor would I trust introspection as a reliable source of evidence in this matter. Still, you and I probably agree that we sometimes do freely act against our own better judgment.

But why suppose that being ignorant of the fact that some action is wrong is the only relevant kind of ignorance in the present context? Had I fully appreciated how my classmate was feeling, or the extent to which my own neurotic impulses were on display, or the psychological damage that an angry attack on another can do to oneself, perhaps I would have avoided this stupid confrontation altogether. Or consider a case where an adulterous affair leads to an absolute disaster. Even if the parties to this affair should have known, on some level at least, that they were acting wrongly, would they likely have anticipated all of the misery they were about to unleash upon themselves as well as upon their loved ones, such as their own children? And had they fully appreciated all of this misery, might they not have acted quite differently?

Our experience, broadly conceived, is surely filled with many such examples. Whenever the consequences of a past action induce us later to regret that very action, we are witnessing, I believe, the role that ignorance played in making this action possible in the first place.



We may pick up on different facets of the puzzle, but I’m thankful to have all you friends who each thoughtfully contribute to my stimulation and blessing. My wife and I are leaving for a 6 weeks of backpacking through Eastern Europe, and probably won’t be able to engage the web much. So my silence may not necessarily mean your take persuades me :wink:. But I will follow this challenging discussion with great interest whenever I can.

Grace be with you,


The question then seems to be does it play the only role. I believe it doesn’t. You seem to indicate as much with your example of yourself in college. Thus it seems to me that it is possible to “knowingly” sin. Therefore, it seems to follow from logical necessity that sin is not totally accounted for because someone “didn’t know better.” There is an inadequate movement of the will - or, to put it more generally, a wrong act being done.

My view is that there must some an element of ambiguity in the interpretation of moral choices themselves in order to maintain free will. If the consequences of our acts were know certainly and irresistibly, there could be no way we could freely do them*. There must always be enough “room” for us to turn our conscience away from the good we’re being told to do and “see it” in such a way that we want to. Take an adulterous affair like you’ve cited. A man may know it’s wrong to sleep with another woman but allow himself to believe he’s justified since his wife has been neglecting him sexually. Temptation, after all, must be appealing in some way. (I realize you do not think Christ was tempted in this way. But I don’t think that’s to the purpose of my point. There must be some difference between the freedom of uncreated, necessarily perfect being and finite, contingent, created being after all So I don’t think it fair to expect absolute parity between our freedom and God’s in every respect.)

*I’m aware your posited definition of freedom may not fill well with this model. However, I believe that in order for us to be the cause of our good/moral acts, God himself cannot be the sole cause behind them. We, in other words, must do something ourselves, the nature of which cannot come from any other agent beside ourselves. Ergo, God could not “make” us in such a way where we always irresistibly did good - for the word “us” would be empty.


Do you, Tom, believe man himself does anything at all to positively effect his sanctification?


The person about whom I wrote that was delivered from alcholism is a person whom I have known for decades. I am still in touch with him. He has drunk alcoholic beverages occasionally for many years. He still hasn’t succumbed to heavy drinking.

I am quite familiar with the disease concept. I think it’s nonsense. In all other diseases, there can be a recovery—even from cancer. So why do the disease proponents insist that one can never recover from the “disease” of alcholism. Yet A.A. that subscribes to the concept, speaks of “recovering alcoholics”. He can these alcoholics be perpetually recovering, and never reach the stage when they have recovered?

I suggest you read the book Heavy Drinking, the Myth of Alcholism as a Disease by Herbert Fingarette.
Amazon sells it.


Okay, let’s say that God knew in the year 2000 B.C. that Hitler would bring about the gruesome killing of 6 million Jews in the 1930s and early 1940s.
That implies that it was true in the year 2000 B.C. and every year since then prior to the holocaust, that Hitler would do this. If it was true that Hitler would do this, then Hitler could not have refrained from doing this. For if he HAD refrained, then it wouldn’t have been true all those years.
So Hitler could not have refrained from doing it. Therefore Hitler was not responsible for doing it, and could not be blamed. For people are blamed only for acts which they could have avoided doing.

The same thing applies to any other human act which was true prior to him doing it. If it were true in advance, then the person could not have avoided doing it. No free will.



I’ve stopped A.A. recently. This is the problem with most people at A.A. It’s a self-esteem program. At least the ones I’ve been to. I don’t agree with everything that A.A. teaches. While I disagree that alcoholism is a physical disease, I agree that it is a spiritual disease. All sin is described this way in the Bible. I think alcoholism is a worship disorder. It’s the worship of a false god. It’s a sin. Placing Christ in that place and worshiping Father (love more than anything) can free one. I don’t call myself an alcoholic anymore. My identity is found in Christ.